National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

How to spot a ferrotype, also known as a tintype (1855 – 1940s)

The photographic formats we’ve examined so far in this series showing you how to date your old family photographs are daguerreotypes and collodion positives. Next up – ferrotypes, also known as tintypes.

A family at the seaside, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection

A family at the seaside, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection

I’ll show you how to identify a ferrotype using just a few simple clues, then we’ll take a look at some examples of ferrotypes in the National Photography Collection.

About the ferrotype process

Ferrotypes first appeared in America in the 1850s, but didn’t become popular in Britain until the 1870s. They were still being made by while-you-wait street photographers as late as the 1950s.

The ferrotype process was a variation of the collodion positive, and used a similar process to wet plate photography.

A very underexposed negative image was produced on a thin iron plate. It was blackened by painting, lacquering or enamelling, and coated with a collodion photographic emulsion. The dark background gave the resulting image the appearance of a positive. Unlike collodion positives, ferrotypes did not need mounting in a case to produce a positive image.

A young boy poses for his photograph at Epson Derby, 1947, William Jones, National Media Museum CollectionThe huge camera in this photograph is the Diamond Gun Ferrotype Camera, which was made by the International Metal and Ferrotype Company, Chicago, Illinois and dates from the 1920s.

A young boy poses for his photograph at Epsom Derby, 1947, William Jones, National Media Museum Collection. The huge camera in this photograph is the Diamond Gun Ferrotype Camera, which was made by the International Metal and Ferrotype Company, Chicago, Illinois and dates from the 1920s.

The ability to utilise a very under exposed image meant that a photographer could prepare, expose, develop, and varnish a ferrotype plate in just a few minutes. This, along with the resilience and cheapness of the medium (iron, rather than glass), meant that ferrotypes soon replaced collodion positives as the favourite ‘instant’ process used by itinerant photographers.

Why are ferrotypes also known as tintypes?

The ferrotype process was described in 1853 by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin, but it was first patented in 1857 by Hamilton Smith in America, and by Willian Kloen and Daniel Jones in England.

William and Peter Neff manufactured the iron used for the plates, which they called ‘melainotype plates’. A rival manufacturer, Victor Griswold, made a similar product and called them ‘ferrotype plates’.

The term ‘ferrotype’ was in common use, but the public tended to prefer the less formal ‘tintype’, implying the cheap, tinny feeling of the material. You can read more about the history and naming of the ferrotype on the George Eastman House website.

Use these clues to identify a ferrotype

Material
These were made using a thin sheet of iron coated with black enamel and can be identified using a magnet.

Image
Because they are not produced from a negative, the images are reversed (as in a mirror). They are a very dark grey-black and the image quality is often poor.

Case
Ferrotypes were sometimes put into cheap papier-mâché cases or cardboard mounts, but today they are frequently found loose.

Ferrotype of three men, c. 1885, National Media Museum Collection

Ferrotype of three men, c. 1885, National Media Museum Collection

Size
Most ferrotypes are fairly small – about 2×3 inches

Rust spots
Because they are made on thin sheets of iron, ferrotypes often show evidence of rust spots or blisters on the surface where the enamel has started to lift off.

Examples of ferrotypes in the National Photography Collection

Ferrotype of a woman, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection

Ferrotype of a woman, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection

Two young boys in a goat cart, c.1880, National Media Museum Collection

Two young boys in a goat cart, c.1880, National Media Museum Collection

Family on Hampstead Heath, 9 July 1876, National Media Museum Collection

Family on Hampstead Heath, 9 July 1876, National Media Museum Collection

Ferrotype portrait of a mother and baby, c.1875, National Media Museum Collection

Ferrotype portrait of a mother and baby, c.1875, National Media Museum Collection

Further reading and interesting links

  • Edward M. Estabrooke, The Ferrotype and How to Make It, 1903
  • Audrey Linkman, ‘Cheap Tin Trade: The Ferrotype Portrait in Victorian Britain’, Photographica World, No. 69, January 1994
  • Steven Kasher, America and the Tintype, Steidl, 2008
  • In this video, Mark Osterman from George Eastman House demonstrates how to make a ferrotype:

Next time, I’ll show you how to identify a carte de visite (late 1950s – c.1910).

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About Colin Harding

I am Curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum. As well as looking after the camera collection I have curated many special exhibitions over the years.

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